Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the report by the Children’s Commissioner for England, On measuring the number of vulnerable children in England, published in July.
My Lords, I apologise to the House for not speaking from my usual place. Unfortunately, my back and the rest of me are not getting on very well together at the moment, although it is only temporary. I thank Black Rod’s office, our marvellous attendants and the usual offices for enabling me to introduce this debate from a sedentary position.
As a former trade union general secretary in the printing industry and the one face to face with Rupert Murdoch at the time of what was known then as the Wapping dispute, I became used to the harsh things that newspapers said about me over the years, especially at that time. I sometimes used strong words against them, too. So I found myself somewhat embarrassed when I told a journalist at the London Evening Standard that his series of reports on the Children’s Commissioner’s report on the number of vulnerable children had reduced me to tears. It was to the credit of the Standard that the report was given front page coverage and, following that, every night of the week brought to the attention of readers what is happening to the lives of so many of our children in England.
David Cohen’s penetrating journalism brought out so clearly this current disgraceful problem—not only in London but throughout England—the commissioner’s remit and the ghastly failure of our society today. It equates with the kind of investigative journalism into similar social failure that Charles Dickens pioneered. I hope that David Cohen’s profession acknowledges that. It is a timely reminder that, in the era of instant tweets and fake news, the pen can still be mightier than the sword. The Standard coverage and today’s debate are a good demonstration of that.
The commissioner’s report was published in July—but with little impact so far as I can ascertain—to galvanise government into action. Today gives us the opportunity to question the Minister on what the Government are doing to engage with the issues that this huge piece of research identifies and to address them. Let us hope that the Government are not so fixated and overwhelmed with Brexit that the welfare of our children does not get the attention and resource that it needs and deserves.
The Children’s Commissioner’s report draws together for the first time the numbers of vulnerable children in England. It has done this by using 12 experts, working solidly for four months, to research the numbers of children reported by the whole spectrum of all government departments, voluntary agencies and others, and for the first time bringing the numbers together to form one picture. Until this report we had separate individual figures from each government department on the number of vulnerable children in its care only. It was a fragmented, incomplete picture. Now there is no excuse and the total figures are horrific.
The detail is in the numbers, but we must not forget that every single number is a child—a child who should be able to enjoy their early years, feel safe, have a home, be free of abuse in all its forms and not have their childhood stolen from them. Yet this is happening to so many children and one cannot escape the fact that it is what the commissioner’s report reflects. It is a sad indictment of our society today.
My objective for this debate is to secure an undertaking from the Government for urgent action in at least three areas. No doubt noble Lords will have others. The first, so clearly demonstrated to be needed, is what some might call “joined-up thinking”—a common phrase but so hard to deliver in national and local government, although many have tried. It needs more than that. It needs a high-level response—the highest, from the Prime Minister. It is only by Mrs May expressing her determination that this scandal—for that is what it is—will now be solved that government departments will work together, pooling ideas and resources. Is there any chance that progress will be made? These children deserve it and they have the right to expect it.
Secondly, we know that local authorities are struggling financially, but is it widely known that the Local Government Association has produced its own analysis indicating that by 2020, there will be an annual shortfall of £2 billion in funding for children’s social care services? What does that mean? It means that the reduced funding will go on crisis interventions—emergencies rather than the earlier intervention that would help. The Children’s Society has found that between 2010 and 2016 local authority early intervention funding was reduced by 40%, with a projected further reduction of 29% by 2020. The impact of these cutbacks is already coming through, with more children in need and more being referred to social services, some 52% of them for abuse or neglect.
The most common assessment is domestic violence, at just under 50%. It is a dreadful picture of so many young lives being brutally damaged and carrying the impact throughout their adult lives. The figures are horrendous. More than 500,000 youngsters in our country are so vulnerable that the state has had to intervene. Some 670,000 children in England alone are growing up right now in what are deemed to be high-risk family situations. Sadly, many more children are just not being seen—although the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, and her team tell me that they are certainly out there.
The report contains many more figures like that, but it is the individual cases, described so well by David Cohen in his series of articles published in London’s evening paper, that bring home what the daily grind and living reality are for individual children. Noble Lords taking part in this debate have great experience and expertise in this area—far more than me—and will cover different aspects, but I should like to address two of them in the time available. The first is that of children who are carers and the second is children who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation. The commissioner’s report cites an enormous figure of 171,000 children between the ages of five and 17 who are unpaid carers. What does that mean for each of those children? It means taking daily responsibility for shopping, cooking and cleaning, as well as often ensuring that the adult they are caring for both gets and takes their medicine when they should. These young people’s childhoods are slipping away.
Young Beau is an eight year-old boy living in Richmond. He has the job of looking after his seriously ill mother because the local council has not succeeded in getting an adult carer for her. Quite apart from his domestic responsibilities, what impact is that having on Beau’s life at school and his future life? Although he is only eight years of age, he is not the youngest. The Honeypot is a charity that does great work giving respite every year for 2,500 child carers between the ages of five and 12 in one of its two homes in the New Forest and Wales. It has an outreach programme visiting children in their home, yet it gets no government funding at all for its work.
The second group I want to refer to specifically is the 119,000 children who are homeless or living in temporary accommodation. An example is a little girl of eight called Hannah. She lives with her mother and younger sister. Their father, who has an alcohol problem, has left the family, but when he was drunk he sometimes returned. When he did, Hannah knew that her responsibility was to take her younger sister upstairs to the bedroom and hide under the bed. However, that did nothing to protect them from hearing the beating their mother was getting from their father downstairs. When it was over, the little girls would see their mother’s face pouring blood. This is not drama but real life for Hannah. The police were called and eventually the mother and children were told that they would have to move, so they went to a homeless refuge. That was not the end of their nightmare; in many respects, it was just the start. Hannah’s problems increased. First, she had to change school, so she lost the teacher she knew and the friends she had made. She was not allowed to give out the new address where she was living, nor could she invite any new friends she made at school home for tea.
All too often in that situation, when a child appears different to others, the bullying starts. So we have a child who has been exposed to domestic violence, at eight years of age; she has lost her home; she has had to change school in difficult circumstances and without any preparation; and now she might be bullied. That is what the commissioner’s report is bringing into the open. It is putting the issue before the decision-makers. We are part of this process: all of us have a responsibility to do what we can in our own way.
I cannot leave Hannah just yet. I am told that the maximum stay in a domestic abuse centre is six months. At the end of six months, with her mother and sister, Hannah had to leave—or more correctly, “present again as homeless”, probably to be moved to another area, another hostel, another short-stay accommodation, another school and another scarring of her childhood experience and life chances. If the family do not accept the short-stay accommodation they are offered, they have technically “made themselves homeless” and are treated as such. Is this what we are prepared to put up with in our “civilised” society? It makes me ashamed—and I suspect it makes noble Lords ashamed, too.
I put one further question for the Minister to respond to in this debate. Will he undertake to go back to the Prime Minister and urge—plead for, if necessary—increased government efforts and resources for our children where they are needed, to ensure that local authorities work with families in homeless centres while they are there to find them alternative accommodation, rather than leave the process until the end of their permitted stay?
Sadly, these human life true stories go on. Marvellous charities are doing all they can and I am not saying that local authorities are lacking in compassion. They are not; the problem is that they do not have the resources to cope—only national government does. This is a Dickensian situation in 2017 with which we must come to terms and to which we must respond in a more considered and profound way than we have done until now.
I am indebted to noble Lords who have put their names down for the debate; they are far more experienced than me and I very much look forward to their contributions. I hope that together we can make a substantial impression and have an impact on the Government to do more than they are doing at the moment. This issue affects us as a nation; it is up to us as a nation, not just as a single party, to address the appalling circumstances of so many of our nation’s children. I am sure that the House and all Members, whatever side they sit on, will agree that it is an embarrassing disgrace to our nation.
My Lords, it is a responsibility to follow the noble Baroness. I hope that her temporary need for a special arrangement will soon pass, because I have had the greatest admiration for her over a long period in this House.
The commissioner’s report is extremely important, not so much for the numbers in it—although I was a mathematician in my early days—as for the range of vulnerability it discloses. It is very difficult to see exactly how this range of difficulty can be encompassed, and I believe that each of the vulnerability types referred to—there is a large number of them in the report—require individual treatment, for the most part.
As far as I am concerned, the principal starting point in any discussion of this kind is the Children Act 1989, which I believe provides a system for dealing with the perceived needs of children and, as is sadly necessary all too often, for taking children into the care of a local authority; there is a threshold for that. A number of the vulnerability types set out in the report can be dealt with under that particular method.
I strongly support what the noble Baroness said about the need for the service provided by the local authorities to be adequately funded and supported. I have seen the Local Government Association’s analysis to which she referred, in which the very grave funding shortfall is set out. I strongly support the view that that is one of the most important areas of government responsibility we have for the children of our nation. When I speak of “our nation” I have to think of the United Kingdom, but the report refers to England alone.
As I said, I do not regard the numbers as quite so important. There is a good deal of difficulty reconciling the various numbers, but I will concentrate for the time I have, which is not very long, on some of the types referred to. The mental health of the children is an extraordinary revelation so far as I am concerned. My schooldays are now a very long time past, but I do not remember in my junior or senior school—where all sorts of people and all levels of the community were represented—coming across anything like this mental health situation. I do not remember a single pupil in the classes I had having any kind of mental health problem.
This is a huge problem. What exactly is the reason for it? How does it come about? It is one thing to deal with it when it has come about, but what is the underlying cause of this very large rise in the mental ill-health of very young children? There are some trends for discussion in our present community that may have an effect on that. It is not for me to say—I am no expert in this area, but it is a very important one. I am glad that the Green Paper the Government have issued seeks to deal with this important aspect.
The next case the commissioner mentions is exclusion from school. It must be an absolutely awful thing for a child to be excluded from school with no proper provision for their education in that situation. These are undoubtedly children with some kind of problem. It is very difficult to know exactly what because there are various problems that may lead to this, but it is extremely serious.
Next is missing children. What is done about them? There are many missing children. What has happened to them? Where are they? What efforts are being made to find them? There is no suggestion that the actions of the children themselves have necessarily led to their being missing—they may have, but they may not. How is that dealt with?
The final important type I want to mention—there are all sorts of others—is children in gangs. I have said before that I believe the issue here is a lack of company, particularly parental company, at home. These children find a gang, a unit, in which they can have social intercourse, and it is the only route that happens to be open to them. All these issues need special attention. The commissioner has done a valuable job in bringing them to our attention.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on her passionate speech and on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about this important report from the Children’s Commissioner on the number of vulnerable children and young people in England. I declare an interest as a vice-president of the children’s charity Barnardo’s.
This report is crucial, shining a light on our ability to identify and support vulnerable children and young people. The definition of vulnerability is wide and children and young people can experience multiple vulnerabilities. So, first, we must recognise that there is a spectrum of vulnerability. Identification cannot be done by one agency alone. All services, including schools and GPs, need to recognise who the vulnerable children and young people are. There needs to be awareness training and procedures need to be in place so that children can be identified, supported and safeguarded as early as possible.
Ever more children are suffering from anxiety and depression. It is well known that half of all lifetime cases of mental health issues start before the age of 14. Shockingly, 800,000 children are suffering from mental health difficulties, so Barnardo’s welcomes the Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health provision, especially the recommendation of a designated lead in mental health in every school by 2025 and the trailblazing approach for testing different ways to reduce the waiting time for CAMHS to four weeks. However, there are concerns about the lack of detail on implementation, because a trailblazer approach starting in 2019 could make the current geographical inequalities even worse. Will the Minister provide more information about which areas these trailblazers will take place in and give more details of how they will be implemented, including the four week waiting period for CAMHS? What assurances can he give the House that funding will be kept under review? The Green Paper commits funding of £310 million only during the period of this spending review, until 2020-21, but the plans for a designated lead teacher in every school will not be complete until 2025.
Some of the most vulnerable children and young people are hidden. A new report from Barnardo’s, Still Hidden, Still Ignored. Who Cares for Young Carers? illustrates how some young carers take on caring responsibilities aged as young as four and others do more than 30 hours of caring a week on top of attending school. These children and young people are more likely to have significantly lower educational attainment than their peers. More than 50% of young carers reported that their caring role impacted on their mental health, with many suffering depression and anxiety. Last week I saw a moving presentation highlighting this from the Lowry in Salford, which uses arts as a tool for social change. Six years ago the Lowry started a relationship with Salford Young Carers Service, a project that has given more than 1,000 young carers a voice.
Although the last census showed that there were some 166,000 young carers under the age of 18, experts estimate that it is more likely that there are around 700,000 hidden young carers in the UK, all of whom are children under the age of 18. One in 12 of these children are caring for someone at home for more than 15 hours a week, delivering significant caring tasks such as administering medication, toileting, bathing, domestic care and emotional support. Around one in 20 of these young people miss school because of their caring responsibilities. These young carers are one and a half times more likely than their peers to be from black, Asian or minority ethnic communities. They are also one and a half times more likely than their peers to have a special educational need or a disability. However, these children are hidden from view, caring in silence, under the radar of social workers and teachers, carrying a huge burden of responsibility, often without support.
To shine a spotlight on this hidden world the Lowry interviewed four brave young carers and their families over the course of a year to produce a heartrending and moving piece of theatre based on their lives, called “Who Cares?”. Professional actors took the play on a national tour to 27 schools and youth centres and it was seen by more than 4,000 young people. On every occasion a new carer was identified and signposted to support. “Who Cares?” was difficult to watch because these were not fictional stories; they were real, and the play did not shy away from the truth of the situation young carers are in. I watched with tears in my eyes.
We need to change how we view young carers and how we treat them in society. These young people are inspiring: they are heroes, and the challenges they face daily are enormous. Depending on where they live in the UK, however, the support available to them can vary hugely. The work delivered by local young carers’ services is crucial at grass-roots level to supporting young people in vulnerable situations. Will the Government consider giving local authorities and commissioning bodies more statutory responsibilities to provide specialist services with adequate resources to identify and support young carers, and to ensure that all young people—regardless of where they live—have access to the highest quality support? As I always say, childhood lasts a lifetime, so we need to support, protect and embrace all children—especially vulnerable, hidden ones—and break the cycle of despair for the sake of future generations.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, not only on her excellent speech but on securing this extremely important debate. I refer to my entry in the register of interests on the issues of trafficking and slavery.
I want to deal with two smaller groups of children who are especially vulnerable: children trafficked into this country and children trafficked within this country, both British and foreign. Foreign children under 18 are trafficked into the United Kingdom. The statistics on those who have gone through the national referral mechanism show that one-third of all identified children—1,278—were victims. Interestingly, the numbers showed 103 in domestic servitude, 468 victims of labour exploitation and 362 victims of sexual exploitation; there were 742 boys and 536 girls. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, as the police particularly know. Many more are undiscovered.
We know that local authorities are overstretched and underresourced. They take these children into care, as far as they are able to, but they do not take them very far. As has already been said, children go missing, but trafficked children particularly go missing from children’s homes, where no doors are locked and their mobiles are not removed. They get in touch with their traffickers and they are then taken and lost.
One particular group of children—Vietnamese children—go missing immediately. They go straight to their trafficker and are locked in a cannabis farm in residential accommodation. The most recent figure I have heard was that there are something like 8,000 such residential places across the country, of which 4,000 are in London, where cannabis plants are grown and the cannabis exported—we do not import cannabis anymore—and these boys under the age of 18 are locked in. It is especially worrying that they are very often being treated by the Crown Prosecution Service as offenders, not as victims, despite being locked in and ill-treated.
To give one shocking case as an example, a Vietnamese boy of 15 was in the dock with the adults, because he had gone through the reasonable grounds of suspicion that he was a victim but the CPS did not accept that—there have to be positive grounds. The local authority treated him in care as a victim; he said that he had been trafficked and beaten; and it was not until the very week of the trial, with the boy in the dock with the adults, that at long last the CPS accepted that he was a victim and not a perpetrator. My goodness me, what was the point of us passing the Modern Slavery Act, which gave the protection of a defence for those under 18 who were victims and committed crimes? The CPS seems to have a very long way to go to recognise this. It did not get in touch with the local authority or ask about this boy. The CPS must rethink quickly on this unacceptable situation.
British children are also exploited. Let me remind your Lordships of Rotherham and Rochdale, where the girls who were groomed and sexually attacked were also trafficked: they were locked into rooms and not able to escape. If that is not trafficking, what is?
However, there is a new form of modern slavery called “county lines”. I have only recently learned about this, but it is truly shocking and increasing rapidly. Thousands of children are being picked up by gangs and taken to towns and cities a long way away from home. They are locked into rooms; they are carrying and peddling drugs; and, all too often, treated as offenders rather than as victims. They are controlled, abused and exploited. At long last, the National Crime Agency has realised that this is a very serious matter. There are something like at least 720 gangs which are taking these children across the country. There has been some Home Office funding but, much though I would congratulate the Home Office for doing that, this is an emergency and a great deal more needs to be done. These are very vulnerable children.
My Lords, I remind the House that this is a time-limited debate and that speeches should be concluded as the Clock reaches five minutes. This is to allow Front-Bench speakers their maximum allotted time.
My Lords, it is indeed an honour to follow the highly knowledgeable noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in this debate. I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on securing this debate and for bringing the high numbers of children who are vulnerable, in one way or another, to the forefront of our attention.
The point of tracking the numbers of those at risk of having outcomes we would not want for any of our children is to prevent and address harm. It is essential that we break the terrible cycles that too many children are caught up in and seem destined—doomed—to repeat. As the former police borough commander for Southwark, John Sutherland, writes in his autobiography Blue:
“I see patterns repeat themselves right across the capital: domestic violence, alcohol-fuelled violence, serious youth violence, knives and guns, drugs, organised crime, the abuse of the vulnerable, the impact of mental illness, the stories of endless distress, in this city that is my home”.
He describes how the devastating files on these children’s families, which reveal endless brokenness and complexity, mirror the repetitions of failed interventions on the part of the state. Getting support and help to these families as early as possible, long before another generation is old enough to be added to the crime statistics or counted among the indicators of risk identified by the Children’s Commissioner’s team, must be our highest priority.
I would therefore challenge the way that the 32 groups of vulnerabilities have been placed into one of four different types. An estimated 670,000 children—the second-highest number—are grouped in type 4, “Children with family-related vulnerabilities”. However, the issues faced by children in many of the other groups have their roots in family relationships, and without being explicit about this the focus will not be in the right place.
To clarify, all the groups in type 1 relate to the 580,000 “Children directly supported or accommodated (or previously accommodated) by the state”. The DfE and Welsh Government figures show that more than 60% of children in care are looked after due to abuse and neglect in their birth families. These are family-related difficulties. The 370,000 in vulnerability type 2, “Children and young people whose actions put their futures at risk”, are all in groups which indicate a strong likelihood of a lack of safe, stable and nurturing relationships in their birth families; ditto, many of the 806,000 children suffering from mental health disorders under type 3, “Children with health-related vulnerabilities”, given the association between dysfunctional and conflictual families and children’s poor mental health.
I am not splitting hairs by challenging this typology. A lack of willingness to recognise explicitly the role families play in mitigating or multiplying the vulnerabilities of childhood helps to drive the data collection difficulties the Children’s Commissioner refers to in her foreword:
“We can trace in minute detail in this country the academic progress of a child from age 4 to age 18 and beyond. Yet when it comes to describing and assessing the scale of negative factors in a child’s life which will hamper their progress, we flounder. This has to change”.
If change is to be effected, we must face up to the barriers that have prevented it to date, significant among which is the reluctance among successive Governments to recognise the need to strengthen families in response to the litany of dire statistics in her report.
This reluctance lies in the mistaken assumption that the public have no appetite for addressing family breakdown. However, as I said in last week’s Budget debate, despite, or perhaps because of, almost half a century of high rates of family breakdown in the UK, support for policies to strengthen families remains strong. Almost three-quarters of adults think family breakdown is a serious problem and that more should be done to prevent families breaking up. More than 80% of adults think stronger families and improved parenting are important for “addressing Britain’s social problems”.
That is why I published A Manifesto to Strengthen Families with several colleagues here and well over 50 Members in the other place. We debated it last month, so I will simply restate now that supporting families cuts across every part of government and requires a high level of cross-departmental working and therefore leadership at the highest level. We need our Prime Minister to append responsibility for family policy on to the portfolio of a senior Secretary of State, in the same way that equalities is led from the big-hitter Department for Education. Without a champion, this vital but neglected agenda and the families which need support will fail.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on securing this debate and on way she has introduced this important topic. I want to concentrate on a particular issue very close to my own heart, which she has highlighted, as has the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin—young carers.
I am glad to see that young carers are included in the definition of a wider group of children with family-related issues. Looking at the definitions, which include being disadvantaged with education, in your economic, social and behavioural situations and in your physical and mental health, it is clear that being a young carer can have an effect on your life in many different ways. Before I mention some of them, with inevitably negative connotations, I emphasise that most young carers are caring with love for a family member who needs them and that without the young carer other care would have to be found. We should celebrate and cherish such family relationships, which give the lie to those people who say young people are not responsible and that families do not care any more. That is not true.
When the contribution of young carers was first identified as far back as the late 1980s, I remember the disbelief with which it was greeted. People simply did not realise or believe that children as young as four or five were acting as the main carers for their disabled or frail parents. I remember the then Minister of Health saying very strongly to me that the figures I was using simply could not be true, and I was accused of scaremongering. I could see why anyone would say that because there was a conspiracy of silence about young carers in those days.
The typical situation then, as is still often the case now, was that one parent would be diagnosed with some kind of disability or condition. All would be well for a while but then the marriage or partnership would break up, leaving the child with the remaining parent, with neither of them wanting to bring their situation to the attention of anyone, not even their GP, for fear of what would happen: that it would be seen to be unacceptable and the child would be taken into care. Indeed, this often happened, so they were right to be fearful. It happened because no one knew quite how to deal with the situation.
I am glad to say that we have moved on a good deal. We have young carers workers and young carers groups, there is attention on the issue and charities running specific services for young carers have proliferated, although I am afraid we cannot ignore the fact that many such projects have been cut as a result of funding constraints on local government. The situation of young carers is much better recognised by health and care professionals, and in education, but they still report being stressed by too much responsibility, being physically tired, missing school, being embarrassed about their situation, being bullied, and having low self-esteem, anxiety, anger or guilt. YoungMinds states that young carers miss an average 48 days of school because of their role, and 68% report having been bullied at some point directly because of having to care for somebody. Research from the Carers Trust shows that young carers doing more than 50 hours’ care a week are five times more likely than normal adolescents to report that their health is “not good”.
As we have heard, there are an estimated 700,000 young carers in the UK, who frequently report that their caring role can cause distress and can impact very badly on their mental health. There are gaps in support and there are barriers that prevent them accessing the support that they need. Many research respondents talked also about worrying about family finances, and the realities of living in a poor household were highlighted by many. Some described shortages of basic necessities and often described how limited resources jeopardised their physical health or participation and achievement at school.
However, this goes beyond school and into the employment market. These difficulties can continue for those who have been carers in their childhood and adolescence, because carers suffer the loss of certain skills, knowledge and confidence as a result of the time spent out of the workforce, which poses considerable barriers to entering the workforce when their caring role has ceased or they have got adequate services. Caring is not understood or respected by employers as a reason to be out of the workforce, especially if it has resulted in long-term breaks. Employers often fail to see the skills that an individual may have gained while caring. Those seeking work may also lack the ability to accurately explain the skills that they have developed, meaning that the value of their caring experience is not fully understood.
I have a couple of suggestions for the Minister to help young carers. The Government should put in place a duty on education providers to identify and support carers, and review the 21-hour study rule on access to benefits. The Department for Education and the Department of Health should work with local government to review waiting times and the quality of young carers’ assessments, including the quality of outcomes, and targeted careers advice should be available to young adult carers. Those are relatively small steps but they could make a huge difference to the lives of young carers.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on securing this debate and her passionate advocacy.
The commissioner has already shown that about a quarter of all children in England have a wide range of vulnerabilities that we should be concerned about. I suspect that progress on tackling this would be facilitated if the Minister’s department could progress faster the adoption of a common identifier for children’s services, based on the NHS number. Can he tell us, or write to me, about where things stand on this long-standing issue?
This initiative will raise big questions about how we use our resources for vulnerable children, and the adequacy of those resources, as other noble Lords have said. We need to take a long, hard look at many of our public policies, which can put children at greater risk. I strongly suspect that we put too much of our effort into trying to cope with deeply embedded problems rather than moving upstream, with more attention being given to earlier interventions and tackling poor and ill-informed parenting.
I turn briefly to three interlinked risk areas that I have been exploring: unregistered schools, home tuition and madrassahs. First, unregistered schools: Ofsted has identified 286 unregistered schools in the past 18 months but only 116 have been inspected, with warning notices issued to 36. The Institute for Jewish Policy Research estimates that 1,400 strictly Orthodox children aged 11 to 15 are being educated in illegal Jewish schools at any one time. Ofsted estimates that about 6,000 children are attending illegal schools in England, but we do not know the true number. The previous and current Ofsted chief inspectors are clearly very concerned about the narrow religious curriculum of the schools—nearly all Muslim or Haredi Jewish—and the unsuitable books and texts being used.
Although it is a criminal offence to operate an unregistered school, recent Answers to my parliamentary Questions show that no operators have ever been prosecuted. This, Ofsted tells me, is because successful prosecutions cannot be brought as there is no satisfactory legal definition of a school. What are the Minister and his department going to do to ensure that prosecutions can be brought at scale to safeguard the thousands of children in illegal, unregistered schools? If he cannot answer today, perhaps we should have a meeting.
My second area of concern is the rapidly growing, unregulated area of home tuition, now provided to nearly 30,000 children. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, is to be commended for endeavouring to tackle the problem in this area with his excellent Private Member’s Bill, which has attracted a high level of external and cross-party support. I see no case for opposing registration in this area as a basis for some light-touch regulation. When an area of unregulated public policy is expanding as rapidly as is home tuition, Governments need to sit up and pay attention to what is going on. It is unlikely to all be good. The Minister was unduly cautious in his response to the speeches at Second Reading.
Finally, I turn briefly to madrassahs, which the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said unequivocally in November 2015 should be registered. The Department for Education then engaged in a public consultation on the issue. We have not heard much since on what the Government will do. The silence was explained when the most reverent Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told this House last Friday—rather dubiously proudly, I thought—how he had intervened. As far as I could make out, his opposition to registration was because it would be inconvenient for Sunday schools, despite his acknowledgement that children were being put at risk.
We know that some madrassahs, like unregistered schools and some faith schools, pose a threat to children because of what they teach, the materials they use and their complete absence of support for British values. The current and previous Ofsted chief inspectors have expressed repeated and very clear concerns about the excessive focus on faith-based education, particularly a distorted interpretation of particular faiths and how it poses serious risks to children. Will the Minister and his department listen to the chief inspectors or to the most reverent Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury when it comes to protecting children in this country on this issue? When will we know whether the Government will pursue the policy of the previous Conservative Prime Minister in the area of madrassahs?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for this debate and for bringing this issue to the House. I have three little girls of my own, and I found Hannah’s story particularly difficult to listen to—as did noble Lords, I am sure—but listen we must, and we must do something for these children.
About a decade ago, before I had my children, I trained and worked as a Samaritan volunteer. In my branch, we had more than a few calls from young teenagers. I would go home to my flat after a night shift and be unable to sleep, wondering how on earth we could live in a world where someone so young had come to the point of having suicidal thoughts and why there had been no one for them to talk to along the way. Ten years on, I have a particular interest in mental health services for children, because for too long as a society we have viewed children’s success solely in terms of academic outcomes which, although obviously a priority, form just one part of a child’s well-being.
With that in mind, I welcome the Green Paper focusing on mental health provision for young people as a very important first step, particularly given the focus on schools. Last Thursday, I was privileged to visit Heathmere Primary School in Roehampton and heard first-hand about the programme that it runs with Place2Be, a specialist child mental health charity. Suffice it to say that when you see a group of children accessing first-point-of-contact mental health services in a primary school, you see vulnerability in all forms. Some of those children have developed, or are at high risk of developing, a clinical mental illness. Some have behavioural problems rooted in all sorts of underlying issues—often things that are going on at home. Some are known to social services, and some are not. Many of them are simply having an appalling run of bad luck, such as family illness or a death in the family. This is a simplistic way of categorising them, but I simply make the point that for too long, we have failed to see emotional health as a priority in schools.
At schools such as Heathmere, where a child’s emotional development is at the very heart of the establishment, there is inevitably a deeper understanding of the plethora of factors that make some children so much more vulnerable than others, and the will and the tools to do something about it. There is quantitative proof that the help these children receive has a lasting impact. Place2Be’s own data shows that 80% of the high-risk children it sees clinically improve; 74% of parents surveyed by Place2Be report improvements in home life; and teachers say that 69% of children seen in one-to-one sessions with Place2Be are less of a burden in classrooms. There is incredibly moving, qualitative evidence that these services help not just children but families, so that cycles can be broken, and there can be hope where there has been none.
Other noble Lords have rightly made the point that we must deal with the causes of mental health problems that children suffer, including family breakdown, addiction and deprivation. For children, like those I met last week, we must also deal with the here and now. Even a day is an eternity for a child. So I urge my noble friend the Minister to ensure that the Government use the Green Paper and the consultation period really to think with empathy from the point of view of a child and their family and, crucially, learn from some of the brilliant work that is already being done in schools, to ensure that implementation does not stall.
Of course, it is right to take the time to make sure that services are delivered properly, but time lost unnecessarily is a major part of a generation’s childhood. I believe that if we accept uncomfortable truths that children can be mentally unwell, that they can face unbearably painful events, we are then obliged to provide environments in everyday life that, while they cannot cure every ill, can equip children and their families with the emotional resilience to respond to life’s challenges and, most importantly, break cycles. In doing so, we can address the problem and its roots.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to highlight these shocking figures. I hope by doing so that we can support the Children’s Commissioner in her determination to track and address child vulnerability in all its forms.
This report is, indeed, shocking in the sheer numbers it identifies, but it is shocking that these figures are often only estimates. So when we are told that more than half a million children are so vulnerable that the state has to step in and provide direct care, intervention or support, 800,000 children aged five to 17 suffer mental health disorders, 119,000 children are homeless or living in insecure or unstable housing, or that nearly 12,000 children are living with an adult in drug treatment, we know that the actual numbers of children living vulnerable or high-risk lives could be even greater.
My concern and profound dismay at these figures echo what is felt by everyone who has already spoken. I want to focus on two of the 32 categories of vulnerability outlined in the report. I mentioned the 119,000 children who are homeless, or living in insecure or unstable housing. For children to thrive from their earliest years, they need a secure home environment. I should declare an interest as chair of the National Housing Federation. We know that families in persistent poverty are often struggling with high living costs. Often the only option available to them is low-quality and insecure housing. Pressure on local authority housing lists means that families are stuck in temporary accommodation, often unsuitable for children, and tensions rise over housing allocations.
We can do something about this. We know that the right housing and the right support enables vulnerable families to break chaotic patterns of living and gain the benefits of settled accommodation in the longer term. When this happens across communities it has a multiplier effect—creating safer neighbourhoods, boosting social capital and reducing demands on acute health and care services. The case for investing in affordable housing is overwhelming. Can the Minister tell us what progress is being made on meeting the targets for increasing our affordable housing stock, and how will the Government ensure that these homes will meet the needs of families on waiting lists?
I also want to highlight the 800,000 children who are suffering mental health difficulties, as many other noble Lords have done. We know that childhood and the teenage years are when patterns are set for the future. A child with good mental health is more likely to develop healthy relationships, to do well at school, and to grow up to be able to take on adult responsibilities and fulfil their potential. So for these vulnerable children, early intervention is crucial. Yet recent government policies have made such intervention much harder to achieve: funding for the early intervention grant has been cut by almost £500 million since 2013, and it is projected to drop by a further £183 million by 2020. Central government funding for local authorities to spend on children’s services fell by £2.4 billion between 2010-11 and 2015-16, while a four-year freeze on support for children under universal credit is expected to reduce the value of key children’s benefits by 12% by the end of the decade. Councils are facing a £2 billion funding gap for children’s services by 2020, while demand continues to grow. Every day last year saw 90 new children entering care and 500 child protection investigations. Can the Minister give any assurance that this funding gap will be addressed in the forthcoming local government finance settlement?
While I wholeheartedly welcome the Government’s consultation on children and young people’s mental health provision, particularly its focus on earlier intervention and prevention—it is long overdue—I ask the Minister whether he thinks its proposals go far enough. Aiming to have new mental health support teams linked to schools and colleges in,
“a fifth to a quarter of the country”,
five years from now seems a very modest ambition, given the scale of the problem. We need to be able to provide support to children, young people and their families when they start to struggle, not 18 months after they are referred for treatment. That is how we will avoid the costly and intense suffering that entrenched mental illness can cause.
I am haunted by the invisible children not captured in these statistics because they haven’t been reported to services, or because of gaps in available data. I hope that this report does indeed help us to count more accurately and to arrive at a system which better identifies the vulnerable child. I echo my noble friend’s plea for an urgent cross-departmental response championed at the highest level of government, so we can offer those vulnerable children the help and support that they need.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, on securing this important and necessary debate. It is a pleasure to have her sitting here beside me. I thank the Children’s Commissioner for her report, which tells us that there are vulnerabilities that are often more difficult to identify and address. It refers to children living in homes with the presence of the toxic trio of mental ill-health, substance misuse and domestic abuse. The need to identify those issues collectively has been a reported key recommendation from serious case reviews over the last decade, yet still our knowledge is based on the risks identified with each issue, not how they combine.
With Christmas coming up and families arranging their festivities, it is appropriate that we are discussing the many vulnerable children spread across England and that we support the difficult work of the Children’s Commissioner. I feel that the very worst situation for children to be in is continued violence and cruelty and for the people who could help to turn a blind eye. I want to remind your Lordships of three cases, which shocked and saddened me.
Victoria Climbié was eight years old when she died on February 2000. She had been tortured and mistreated by her aunt and partner. The inquiry found that 12 opportunities were missed to save Victoria, and it showed shambolic council officials, incompetent police, flawed hospital assessments and ignorance. My noble friend Lord Laming was the inquiry chairman. He said that the hearings would serve as an “enduring turning point” in the history of British child protection.
Then, on 3 August 2007, Baby P was murdered. He was 17 months old and died after months of being used as a punchbag and then having his back and ribs broken. It happened in the same area where Victoria had experienced that awful cruelty and terrible death. My third case is 18 month-old Elsie, who died in May 2016 after she was shaken and beaten to death at the family home in Cardiff by her adoptive father, a fitness instructor. A senior family court judge criticised social services for failing to take action.
There are so many different groups of vulnerable children. I was a member of a board of visitors at a young offender institution for many years. I used to ask the boys of school age how they got on at school when they were at home. They would say that they did not go to school, but went back for their free lunches. Nobody seemed to bother, neither their families nor the schools—perhaps the schools did not want disruptive pupils. But there should be a better system.
I have had first-hand experience of alcohol problems in the home. When my husband and brother-in-law were schoolboys, they did not know if it was safe to bring a friend home in case their mother was under the influence of drink; she was an alcoholic. When my husband asked me to marry him, his big problem was how to explain about his mother. Drug and alcohol use by parents can make many children vulnerable.
Time does not allow me to expand on the extra costs and pressures of disability, which can make for vulnerable children, or on the need for more training for people looking after children with eating problems—the list goes on. I hope that this debate will highlight vulnerable children’s need for support and care. Professionals should work with good communication and in co-operation, rather than in isolation.
My Lords, this debate speaks to a wider issue in our politics. Our politicians often willingly and unthinkingly use nebulous terms. When the time comes for serious legislative lifting, those terms that action has been predicated on are not useful. “Vulnerable” is one of those words—it is used regularly—and another is “support”. “Support” can mean financial payments, a statutory duty or subsidy—indeed any number of things—while “vulnerable” also appears to have no clear definition, or nothing that policymakers here and in another place can drill down into. Without a clear definition, we will find our objectives unending. Once we have attempted to solve one problem, another lobby will say we have not fixed another.
My party’s manifesto at the last election committed to supporting,
“vulnerable children for whom the state acts as a parent”.
That seems to be one clear indicator of what a vulnerable child is, namely that the state is a surrogate. But some children are in gangs, or have severe mental health difficulties. If the state is not involved in their lives, they may well slip through the gaps. I believe an easier solution can be found to maintain the promises made to vulnerable children and families in the manifesto. We ought to scrap the use of the word “vulnerable” and say what we mean when talking about specific groups. After all, every child is vulnerable, which the report correctly alludes to.
Reading the report, I got the impression of the authors trying to grasp a slippery rock. With 32 different categories, no one policy could hope to address all the problems facing the children discussed. This is a direct result of lazy thinking. To make the point, a politician may well promise to help vulnerable children, thinking of mentally unwell youths, but the people to whom they talk may take that to mean absent children or young carers.
Furthermore, the way that the machinery of government works is not compatible with the regular use of the word “vulnerable”. For the Department of Health, it may encompass children who have substance-abusing parents or who suffer from mental illness. For the Department for Work and Pensions, it may cover children aged 16 to 18 who are not in employment, education or training. I propose that we ask every department to come up with the children it has contact with whom it considers vulnerable. That would be a strategy led by policymakers, not one foisted on them by a nebulous term. After they have produced that work, they can develop their own strategies. Perhaps some would wish to attach that duty to one of their Ministers, as someone to take the lead on the strategy. Then we would be able to refer to a strategy to help teenage parents or a strategy to help care leavers or any other group and address the issues of vulnerable children overall.
The report alludes to the aim that,
“we as a society need to know who these children are, how many they are, and what their different outcomes are, if we are to have any hope of beginning to address their needs”.
There is no reason for departments not to come up with definitions and work together to help categories of vulnerable children while staying within that stated aim. Will the Minister consider this course of action?
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for introducing this debate and for the burning conviction with which she spoke in opening it.
I should declare an interest as I was for nine years president of YMCA England, which, of course, finds itself in the front line of working with all the issues we are discussing. In correspondence with YMCA about this debate, it made the following rather interesting point about the report, which it greatly welcomes:
“The Children’s Commissioner’s report alarmingly shows that a substantial amount of work is needed if we are to have a true picture of how many vulnerable children exist in England. Given the scale of uncertainty, it begs the question if society does not know the number of vulnerable children, how can we be close to ensuring that we have the appropriate resources in the right places when they are actually needed?”.
This is a huge challenge.
It might be appropriate at this stage, in view of all that has been said, and particularly as we approach Christmas, to send a message of good will and solidarity to those local authorities which really care about children and are struggling to provide and play their part amidst all the cuts and restrictions placed upon them. Similarly, in a world in which we have such an irresponsible public press, we should put on record our admiration of dedicated, hard-working, committed social workers across the country, who are grappling with these issues on the front line.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons said something truly disturbing in his report this year: that no prison he inspected,
“was safe to hold children and young people”.
As the Howard League for Penal Reform points out, as we come up to Christmas, thousands of youngsters will be locked into just that situation: suicide, self-harm, drugs, and all the rest. That is to leave to one side what happens to vulnerable young children on arrest, who too often experience the nightmare of Tasers, spit hoods and total isolation in police cells.
What are we doing to our children? All this reflects the failure of society. The point that they are so often the victims has been stressed already in this debate. I took a particular interest in the work of the YMCA with young offenders, and I repeatedly came to the conclusion that it would be an absolute miracle if the people I was talking to in institutions had not ended up there; in one form or another their lives had been total nightmares. How can we think that we can solve this in the institution, when it is short of resources, the money available to it is being cut back, and all the rest? The origins of the problem lie in society. It starts with us, in this very House.
The truth of the matter is that many of these children have never been loved. That cannot be solved by institutional arrangements; it has to be solved by the values of society and of the people who work within the system. However, if you have a society dedicated to acquisitive principles, selfishness and egocentricity, how can we begin to get this right with our own children?
I will make one last point in this excellent debate. I believe deeply that there is a moral and social challenge that every one of us in this Chamber, and society as a whole, has to face up to: it is the sickness of our society that is producing this nightmare. We read Dickens—but now look at ourselves. We have one hell of a job to do in changing society around.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for securing this debate and for the manner in which she opened it. If she is able to do that from a sitting position, one can only imagine what she can do when her back is better. I hope that will be soon.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Coram, which is the oldest children’s charity in this country, founded in 1739. We have a range of activities which, I suspect, touch every single one of the 32 groups the Children’s Commissioner identified. I was fortunate to be present at the briefing she gave here in this House on 27 November, and I thank her and her team for all the hard work that has produced this “work in progress” report.
Frankly, the reaction from those of us at that meeting was, how on earth did we get into a mess like this? There were some much more knowledgeable and experienced people than me in the room—for example, the noble Lord, Lord Warner. Several of them spoke of a long and tangled history of attempts to get a better handle on these statistics, and of failing again and again. There were comments about the persistence of a silo mentality across departments, agencies and regions; an embarrassment of data—most of it disaggregated and much of it confusing and contradictory; and myriad pilot schemes, which departments seem to be particularly fond of, most of which are expensive and now long forgotten. Governments change and Ministers come and go but, inexorably, vulnerability seems to have got worse and worse.
However, we now have an opportunity to be genuinely innovative, and there is some good news, which I will come back to. I have some questions I would like to pose to the Minister which I think his team is already aware of, so I hope he has the answers ready. First, on looked-after children with unresolved immigration issues, what is the department doing to identify those not in the asylum system, including EEA nationals? Secondly, how are the Government ensuring that local authorities have sufficient resources to regularise the status of looked-after children with unresolved immigration status? This is exacerbated by the lack of legal aid and by a hideously complex application form and expensive application fee. Thirdly, did the Government ever consider the vulnerability of children in care with immigration issues when they decided on a 10-year resettlement programme? Fourthly, what steps are the Government taking to help children excluded from school who have special educational needs? That is a particularly complex problem.
To return to the opportunity to be innovative, we live in an era of big data and data analytics, and we are entering the exciting but rather uncertain world of artificial intelligence. It is a sad truth that many of the large social media companies often know more about vulnerable children than all the different arms of government put together. I refer your Lordships to some investigative work—I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for pointing me in this direction—carried out in May of this year by the Australian newspaper. It published a story about Facebook’s having shown one of its advertisers its ability to determine whether young people were feeling—in its words—“stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless”, or a “failure”. It was also rather proud that it was able to give data on people who had body confidence issues or concerns about their appearance. It is a bit worrying that Facebook and other social media companies genuinely probably know more about these vulnerable young children than we do.
Now for the good news. In 2017, Parliament passed the Digital Economy Act. An organisation—which I will mention in a minute—says, on the implications of this Act, that it,
“enables the transformation of personal information held by government departments into an immensely valuable resource of anonymised datasets for research purposes”.
That may sound rather dry but it is actually rather exciting. It means we can have cross-sector, longitudinal analysis which can give us real insight and, best of all, knowledge. That organisation is the Administrative Data Research Network, which is under the ESRC, which is part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I appeal to the Minister, his officials and other departments to find out about this resource and use it, and to embrace 21st-century technology. We have an unprecedented opportunity to be child-centric. For the children’s sake, please go and do it.
Finally, I suggest to the Minister some Christmas reading: 210 pages of the OECD’s Integrating Social Services for Vulnerable Groups: Bridging Sectors for Better Service Delivery. It will keep him awake.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those of others to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. She said she was indebted to us all for speaking in the debate and I hope she will still feel indebted to me when I sit down. I thank also the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield. Although the statistics in her report have been cited many times, I see something much deeper underneath it.
I must declare a couple of interests. First, I grew up in care, so I have some knowledge of the system—although that was 60 years ago, so it is totally out of date. Secondly, I was the research officer for the Committee on One Parent Families, where for the first time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we tried to get to grips with the definitions of disadvantage. Believe it or not, until then nobody really knew what the concept was, apart from a word to look up in a thesaurus to try to get some similes. Thirdly, I am a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, so I hope I will be forgiven if I talk more about statistics than the human nature side.
To me, one thing that comes through in this report is that the commissioner is grappling with definitions and with size. At one point, she says that 4 million children live in families with less than half the average household income. There, she is talking about the largest definition of vulnerability, but that is a quarter of all children; it has to be a bit more precise than that. If you read the report carefully, you will see that under the definition of children with alcoholic parental problems, the number ranges from just over 15,000 to around 900,000. There is clearly a need to refine this much more. In the section on the lack of clarity on definitions, the commissioner mentions,
“children whose parents may have limited parenting capacity”.
She states also that the number of children who have physical health issues ranges from 206,000, but that the Council for Disabled Children has,
“700,000 children … who have a limiting, longstanding illness”,
going up to,
“1,478,487 children who have a longstanding illness”.
The point I am making—I make it also to the Minister—is that the Government need to try to refine the definitions of poverty and disadvantage to get closer to the real figures.
To go back to my experience on the one-parent family committee, we found that, as defined, “difficulty” and “poverty” were readily solvable. The committee was known as the Finer committee, because in those days committees tended to be christened after their chairman. I well recall Morris Finer, who sadly died rather young, saying, “I think we could solve half the problems by issuing each one-parent family with a £5 note”. When we looked at it, we saw that poverty was the root cause of a huge number of problems, but it was not then a social work issue but a redistribution and benefits issue. The fact was, and probably still is, that one-parent families tended, by definition, to have one earner and to be much poorer and therefore able to give much less support to their children. This is probably still an issue. It was quite different from the problems we had with alcoholic parents or parents who just could not cope.
One of the two biggest challenges facing the Minister is getting adequate definitions of problems. He will then have to deal with defining a hierarchy of those problems, because they cannot be defined and cured all at once.
The final point for the Minister to grapple with, which all Ministers must, is resources. There is not an unlimited level of resources. Too often in this House I come to debates about the demandeur not the payer: we demand the money but have no idea where it will come from. There is a limit to state expenditure and one of the biggest difficulties for the Minister and his colleagues is coming to terms with where the money will come from and the hierarchy of needs to be addressed. I wish the Minister well—I do not envy him in the task ahead.
There is no difference between the parties in this Chamber on this. We all want to do our best. The debate is about how to do it, not whether to do it. Therefore, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for introducing this report and giving us an opportunity to air these views.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lady Dean on securing this important debate, and the Children’s Commissioner on producing this invaluable report. I want to highlight the impact of parental imprisonment on children. Prisoners’ families are more vulnerable to financial instability, poverty, debt and potential homelessness following the imprisonment of a family member. Living in poverty as a child increases the risk of having low attainment at school. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that,
“it is clear that young people from poorer backgrounds across the UK are much less likely to achieve good qualifications, putting them at much higher risk of continuing to live in poverty as adults”.
The excellent report produced by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, on the importance of family ties in reducing offending said that at any one time there are around 200,000 children with a parent in prison. It noted that most children with a parent in prison benefit from continued contact with that parent. The report recommended extended visits to allow children to spend time with imprisoned parents in a child-friendly environment. The Government need to be aware of prejudice and discrimination that may affect the fortunes of prisoners’ children.
The Children’s Commissioner has begun the vital task of estimating accurately the number of vulnerable children in this country so they will no longer be invisible. As she explained,
“we as a society need to know who these children are, how many they are, and what their different outcomes are, if we are to have any hope of beginning to address their needs”.
I welcome the commissioner’s determination to include the number of children who have a parent in prison in future reports. Surprisingly, the Government do not collect this data.
Children with imprisoned mothers are one of the most vulnerable at-risk groups and often experience multiple disadvantages and traumas. There is no formal agency or organisation responsible for prisoners’ families. Because of this, there is little documentation of the changes they experience and the help and support, if any, they receive when their mother is incarcerated. Children in this group are more likely to suffer mental health problems, struggle at school, have behavioural problems and experience stigma and isolation.
Women in prison are often primary carers of children. A prisoner survey found that six in 10 women in prison had on average two dependent children. Women’s imprisonment results in over 17,000 children being separated from their mothers each year. For the majority of these children, it is the first time that they have been separated from their mother for more than a day or so. In a recent study of 17 imprisoned women, 51 children were directly affected.
The imprisonment of a mother compounds, rather than mitigates, pre-existing family problems, and for children, witnessing their mother’s arrest can be traumatic. A recent study found that children with a mother in prison may experience “confounding grief”, which is expressed in angry and aggressive behaviour. Imprisoning a mother often results in the loss of parental care and the break-up of the family. Only 5% of children remain in their family home when a mother goes to prison and only 9% are cared for by their father. Children have on average four different carers during a mother’s sentence.
Many caregivers do not want to tell children the truth about their mother’s imprisonment. This secrecy or forced silence can lead to a great sense of stigma for children. Even when mothers serve very short sentences, this has a profoundly devastating impact on children, including insecurity, bed-wetting, nightmares and bullying.
One in five women in England and Wales is held more than 100 miles away from home, making visiting difficult for children and often unaffordable for carers. Regular contact between mothers and their children increases the likelihood of positive outcomes for children and, as the Farmer review made clear, is better for offenders, too Yet another study found that 50% of imprisoned mothers do not receive visits from their children during their sentence.
The imprisonment of a household member is one of 10 adverse childhood experiences known to have a significant negative impact on children’s long-term health and well-being, school attainment and later life experiences, sometimes resulting in their own imprisonment. Action is needed to reduce the unnecessary imprisonment of women, especially for short-term sentences, replacing them with community alternatives. More must be done to identify the needs of children of imprisoned parents. I wish the Children’s Commissioner success in her future efforts to identify these vulnerable and invisible children.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for securing today’s important debate. I welcome it and acknowledge its importance in safeguarding vulnerable children. The report points out the huge task that the commissioner has in gathering reliable figures with which to work to improve the lives of vulnerable children. I commend the commissioner for the aim set out in her briefing of focusing on the child—putting the child at the heart of the matter.
I will focus on one area of the report—the experiences of children in the looked-after system. Here I declare an interest as vice-president of Barnardo’s children’s charity. Noble Lords have already heard some information about the charity from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, who has also spoken about it. Barnardo’s does a great deal of work with children in the looked-after system and to support them when they leave care, including adoptive and foster placements for harder-to-place children, post-adoption counselling, support for adopters and adoptees and residential care for children and young people who are not able to live in a foster placement or at home. The charity also provides support to care leavers as they make the transition to adult life, including employment, training and skills, accommodation and mental health and emotional well-being.
The number of children in care is at its highest level for three decades, with a 31% increase in the number of children subject to child protection plans and a 108% increase in referrals to children’s social care services since 2010. The reasons for this are complex but it means that there is an increasing number of vulnerable children for whom the state has a responsibility as a corporate parent to help provide a stable, loving environment and to assist them to move on from traumatic childhood experiences.
Budget cuts have challenged services’ ability to provide the right support at the right time to the most vulnerable children. Barnardo’s highlights the complexities surrounding many of these children. A recent analysis of 630 referrals made to Barnardo’s fostering services revealed that 16% of fostering referrals involved a young person who had been involved in child sex exploitation; 17% involved an unaccompanied asylum seeker or a child or young person who had been trafficked; and 6% involved children or young people who were exhibiting harmful sexual behaviour.
The need for support for vulnerable children does not end when children leave the looked-after system. Last year alone, 11,000 16, 17 and 18 year-olds left local authority care in England. Most young people’s parents help them on their transition to becoming independent adults, but often care leavers do not have this support, and for many this is a frightening and uncertain time.
Last year Barnardo’s supported 3,200 care leavers to make the transition to independent living. This work has shown that a key problem for this group is lack of mental health support. Research by the charity showed that one in four care leavers had faced a mental health crisis since leaving care, and that 65% of care leavers with mental health needs were not accessing a statutory service.
Children are our future. It is our duty to support them in every possible way. Can the Minister say what is being done to ensure that there is adequate funding in place to help these vulnerable children when they need it the most?
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, to the mobility Bench. I congratulate her on securing this debate and the Children’s Commissioner on her excellent report.
I will start by focusing on children with either mental or physical illness, disability or infirm condition, which covers two of the sectors in the report. Your Lordships’ House will remember that during the passage of the Children and Families Bill we discussed at some length amendments to provide support for pupils with medical conditions at school. The statutory guidance issued in December 2015 laid a clear burden on schools and various other associated education partners to ensure that children with long-term, life-limiting medical conditions were treated and supported appropriately in the education environment.
The Health Conditions in Schools Alliance carried out a survey of 200 schools and found that 47% had a medical conditions policy in place—which is encouraging two years after the guidance was introduced—but that only 11% had guidance that complied with the Government’s standards. Earlier this year, Young Epilepsy conducted a survey of young people with epilepsy, their parents and carers to find out whether they are getting the support that they needed. One in three young people with epilepsy still does not have an individual healthcare plan at school, which should set out essential information, including what staff do in an emergency. Two out of three healthcare plans do not include how epilepsy might affect learning. One of the key points in the progress of the Children and Families Bill was to make sure that health and education were completely at one—because you could not treat a child’s education completely separately from a long-term condition.
Only half of the families surveyed said that school staff had been trained to support a young person with epilepsy. One in six young people with epilepsy is excluded from activities in school. That is not good enough. The stories that your Lordships’ House heard about children excluded from activities at school because of their condition is one reason why the guidance was approved. Is the Minister prepared to ask that all schools publish their medical conditions policies on their websites, and that school inspections should include a routine check to ensure that support for children with medical conditions is there?
The second group of vulnerable and hidden children I want to talk about is those whose numbers we do know clearly—or at least, the Department of Health knows them. These are children who are born with or develop terminal conditions and who require consistent and excellent support. Noble Lords will know that I have spoken on this matter on more than one occasion in the House, but the lack of support that these children are getting is an outrageous scandal. Only a third of CCGs say that they are implementing the Government’s Our Commitment to you for End of Life Care policy, while a further 19% say that they are thinking about doing so. Some 93% of CCGs are cutting support for respite and palliative care for this vulnerable group of children. Although 63% of CCGs commission services to provide community paediatricians, only 29% provide out-of-hours care.
These dry figures are easily remedied by one blog from a mother. The Nascot Lawn centre is just down the road from me. It is one of the very rare centres that provides proper medical respite care for very severely ill children. Lennon, aged 10, was first referred to Nascot Lawn when he was two years old. I will give an idea of the complexity here. At the time he had a Hickman line, fluids, 24-hour oxygen and a 24-hour PEG-J feeding tube into his stomach. After a few months of “tea visits”, the staff at Nascot Lawn and the family all made the decision that respite care at the NHS-run Nascot Lawn would not work due to his complex medical needs. He was too medically complex even for that NHS medical respite care centre.
When he was in Great Ormond Street Hospital, which treats the most medically complex children in the country, he was under 16 different specialist teams. Sadly, the local CCG has decided that the Nascot Lawn centre is not necessary because it provides respite care, which the NHS does not support. I hear mutters to the effect that, “That is nonsense”. It is complete nonsense, because after the announcement of the closure, Lennon’s mother went through a series of interviews with all the health professionals, but they could offer only one centre four hours away from their home for just one weekend’s respite a month, which was what they had been getting up to that point.
The family was then told that that was not practical, either. To quote from Lennon’s mother’s blog, they were then faced,
“with the impending reality of being solely responsible for a child requiring an extreme level of medical input, with no overnight respite for the indefinite future … Getting up every 2 hours throughout the night, every single night is exhausting. You cannot roll over in bed and make a decision to ‘skip’ getting up because you simply don’t have the energy. You have to drag yourself out of bed, force your legs to carry you to your son’s downstairs bedroom and wake up enough to be competent in carrying out the procedures … Life or death is a huge responsibility for any parent to have to deal with. No one would expect a nurse in a hospital to work the hours parents do, or take on the responsibility that parents take on when they are caring for a medically complex child”.
What was the solution offered, given the impending closure of the respite centre? The blog continues:
“We were later advised to consider looking into a 38 week a year residential placement for Lennon—potentially costing the NHS in excess of £200,000 a year”.
The Nascot Lawn centre costs £600,000 a year to care for all the children who use it. The really sad news is that Lennon died in August, as his parents knew he would. But there are other parents who are looking at having to lose their children because the NHS has withdrawn its support.
I ask the Minister whether he will continue, as I know the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, has, to look at what the NHS can do for these children. Why is it important for the education Minister to do this? It is because of the link between the Department of Health and the Department for Education in making the best provision for a child that was so clearly set out in the Children and Families Act 2014.
In my last few minutes I will pick up on some general themes on behalf of my Benches. The one core message that is absolutely evident in the Children’s Commissioner’s report is that we seem to have lost our way with collecting data. Data is vital if we are to understand the problems. I urge the Minister to consider that for this particular group of children there should be one Minister with responsibility for looking at data across departments to make sure that we do not lose sight of these children. I do not mean only those I have spoken about in the physical and mental health category, but across the board. It has to be the responsibility of the Department for Education to ensure that all our children get the best support in life.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, spoke of the importance of making sure that we do talk about statistics. I am worried that, in the bonfire of regulations that was really taken on board post 2010 and seems to have continued since then, even government departments do not have the capacity to understand what is happening in their own department. The noble Lord finished by commenting—I believe that these were his words—“We often demand but we do not say how we should pay. There is a limit to state spending”. No, no and no again. The children who have been discussed in the debate absolutely deserve their human right to receive support from the state. There has been much consideration of austerity in other debates in your Lordships’ House. Austerity for these children means that their lives will continue to be destroyed. As my noble friend Lady Benjamin said earlier, it is really important to remember that childhood lasts for life. Children like Lennon and many others are facing severe cuts in support. Austerity means a life cut short and families struggling to cope from day to day. Our children deserve better.
My Lords, I welcome this debate on the report of the Children’s Commissioner and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Dean on her excellent and well-informed speech, which has led to a really excellent debate. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, thinks that the numbers are less important than the range of vulnerabilities set out in the report, while the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, thought that more work needs to be done on refining definitions. These are important points, but in the end the one message that comes through in the report is that the statistics, shocking as they are, are regarded by the Children’s Commissioner as being but the tip of the iceberg. The point she makes is that the figures set out in the report are likely to underestimate the actual number of children living vulnerable lives because many of them are invisible to services. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, is surely right to say that the kind of reductions we have seen in the traditional functions of the Civil Service will have an impact on that.
In her report, the Children’s Commissioner argues that the Government must do more to collect better data and questions how effectively the problems that are outlined can be tackled if departments and agencies do not know how many children are affected or cannot agree on how to define and therefore identify them. The first point to be put to the Minister is whether the Government are going to respond positively to this. If not, the way that statistics lead into the analysis of policy, and then lead to changes in policy, is simply not going to happen in the most effective way possible.
The overriding message from my noble friend was the need for joined-up thinking in government and leadership from the Prime Minister. I agree. A number of noble Lords will have experience of how departments work or do not work together, but one thing is for sure. If we have leadership from the top of government and that is backed up by some kind of joint performance—targets, or call it what you will—different departments will be forced to work together. That is the only way to get the kind of joined-up approach to policy development and implementation that we need to see. Again, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to say something about this rather than just relying on saying that there are good relationships between departments. Can he give us some idea of a mechanism for driving forward the kind of changes we need?
Our next debate is about poverty. Of course, the links between poverty and children’s vulnerabilities are very strong. We have had a large number of excellent reports from organisations. I was struck by the joint report from the Children’s Society, Action for Children and the National Children’s Bureau, published just a month ago, which looked at the impact of central government funding cuts on early intervention. At the moment, the reality in the field is that local authorities that deal with children who face abuse and neglect are intervening only when the problems reach crisis point. We all know that early intervention has got to be the answer. The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke about an NHS body saying that respite care was nothing to do with it. Clearly, that is absolute nonsense, but it shows how such bodies are under pressure to make lots of cuts—but short-term cuts will lead them into longer-term higher expenditure. Again, I ask the Minister: how will we ensure that early intervention takes place, rather than the kind of disasters that follow when that has not happened?
The work of schools in this regard is crucial. I understand entirely why the Department for Education is responding to the debate. I was struck by the recent work of the National Association of Head Teachers, looking at the experience of their colleagues in schools. It revealed that schools now have to provide food, clothes and even washing facilities for children from poor and chaotic homes. We should offer our thanks to schools for the kind of job they are taking on; whether they should have to do that is very much in doubt, but it shows the scale of the problems that we face. Schools are having to take on the role of supporting children in a way that one would never had envisaged when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, spoke about his early days in education.
My noble friend Lady Pitkeathley made an authoritative statement on the needs of young carers. She suggested that there should be a duty on education providers to support carers who are pupils in their establishment. I hope that the Minister will respond to that, alongside the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, that schools should make their policy readily available. That would be very helpful.
A number of noble Lords have talked about mental ill-health, which is a huge problem for young people. We have heard about suicides being the biggest cause of death for boys under the age of 19. That is a shocking statistic. We are also finding that for many people with mental health problems, the first symptoms appear when they are aged 15 or under—yet the funding for child and adolescent mental health services is a scandal, frankly. We can go through any number of reports: a recent one from the CQC, or one from the Centre for Mental Health. All of them point out that young people are not getting access to mental health services, often having to wait for months for their first referral and sometimes being sent miles away from where they live when they need in-patient care. Ministers make the right statements and have Green Papers, but the reality is that not enough progress is being made. I believe that we will have to ring-fence funding centrally. I hope that the Minister will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Health about that.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made some telling points about very vulnerable children being taken inappropriately through the criminal justice system. We heard from my noble friend Lord Judd about the dreadful experiences of young people in young offender institutions. My noble friend Lady Healy talked about the 200,000 children at any one time with a parent in prison and specifically about the problems for children with a mother in prison. One of the telling things she said is that in those situations, very few children remain in their families or are able to visit their mother in prison. I hope that the Minister can say something about his department’s work with the Ministry of Justice on how we can turn some of that around.
My noble friend Lady Warwick made a telling point about housing, which we have not had much time to debate; she said that we need the right housing and support, particularly when it comes to chaotic families. The appalling problem of the lack of social housing in this country must be a factor in such people finding it so difficult to work through the problems that they face.
In congratulating my noble friend Lady Dean, there is one overriding theme. First, we need the Government to work with the Children’s Commissioner to refine statistics, definitions and vulnerabilities. Secondly, we need a joined-up approach from the Government. Above all, we need a high-level commitment to drive progress and ensure that different departments work effectively together. Only then will we have any hope at all of dealing with these pressing issues.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for securing this important debate. I also express my thanks to Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, and her team, who worked on this report. At the beginning of her report, the commissioner quotes AA Milne. I feel it is only right to start in a similar manner:
“Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”.
We must try to get vulnerable children, in particular, to think like this.
When something goes wrong for a child, there should always be someone there to help. It is our duty to make sure that children and families have that support. The noble Baronesses, Lady Dean and Lady Benjamin, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, are correct that we need a joined-up approach to supporting vulnerable children. In my response, I will attempt to address that challenge.
Every child should have their voice heard and receive the care and support they need to realise their potential. It was in recognition of this that the Children’s Commissioner post was introduced. Across government, we are taking action to address these issues, whether through reforming children’s social care, prioritising mental health or better protecting victims of domestic violence and abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Judd, is right that it is important that we provide social workers with the highest level of support. For some of the most vulnerable, our new What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care—due to launch in early 2018—will ensure that social workers across the country are able to learn from best practice in keeping children safe. It will develop a strong evidence base around effective interventions and practice systems in children’s social care and support their implementation by practitioners and decision-makers.
The noble Lord, Lord Loomba, raised the specific issue of looked-after children. Vulnerable children have the greatest difficulty in getting specialist mental health support. To improve access to that, in February 2016 the Government announced the establishment of an expert working group to explore how to improve support for looked-after and previously looked-after children. By commissioning this work, the Government have been able to identify issues faced by children who experience life in care.
We are putting a record £1.4 billion into children and young people’s mental health and will continue to look at where improvements can be made. We are working with the Department of Health to commission a survey on the prevalence of mental ill-health in looked-after and previously looked-after children as part of the mental health Green Paper, published on 4 December. This will inform the commissioning of services, the development of policy and the training of professionals.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Benjamin and Lady Warwick, sought assurances on mental health funding. The Green Paper commits to a 2021 programme of designated lead teacher plans. The DfE funding for training designated senior leads will provide up to £15 million to £20 million a year until all schools have had a chance to train a lead. We will confirm a timetable for the rollout and the amounts schools will receive following the Green Paper consultation in March.
The noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, asked about the health trailblazers. We are consulting extensively on that. Details will be confirmed after the Green Paper consultation closes in March.
Our commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is reflected in reforms that we have undertaken in areas such as the Children and Families Act 2014. This has strengthened the remit and independence of the Children’s Commissioner for England. It has introduced a number of measures to protect children’s welfare and improved provision for children with special educational needs.
The Children and Social Work Act 2017 comes into force next year. It will ensure that local authorities, the police and clinical commissioning groups have a duty to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This goes some way to meet the challenge from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about a joined-up approach. I hope it also addresses the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin, about local authorities having statutory responsibilities. Other reforms include enhanced support and protection for victims of modern slavery. We continue to work closely with partners, including UNICEF and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, to understand the main concerns of the sector and of children.
More children than ever are benefiting from free early education. Some 93% of three year-olds and 96% of four year-olds are accessing the 15 hours of free provision. On 1 September, 30 hours was rolled out nationally and more than 216,000 parents have successfully received their eligibility codes for this term. The gap between disadvantaged children and others achieving a good level of development is narrowing, down from 19% in 2013 to 17% in 2016-17.
The department continues to fund a number of anti-bullying organisations to support schools. For example, the Diana Award’s peer-to-peer anti-bullying programme trains young people as anti-bullying ambassadors, and the Internet Matters initiative allows young people to report bullying incidents simply and privately. The Government engage with the internet industry through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and we follow carefully the work undertaken by the Children’s Commissioner on digital protection.
The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, spoke movingly about the horrors of grooming and trafficking. As part of the response to failures in places such as Rotherham and Rochdale, we have established joint targeted area inspections and created a child sexual response unit. We have run a successful campaign to raise awareness and tackle child abuse. In 2016, the “Together, we can tackle child abuse” programme saw 110 councils sign up, running local awareness-raising initiatives to encourage the public to report suspected child abuse and neglect. The campaign recognises that, no matter how good children’s services are, there is still a wider network of people and professionals who have a vital role in spotting and sharing concerns about children. As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said with such clarity, we all have a collective duty. The campaign is in its second year and has improved on the initial success, increasing the number of councils signing up to 125 and further expanding through print, radio and social media.
Where local authorities are not delivering children’s social care services to the standard we expect, we have shown that we will take tough action. We are appointing expert advisers and challenging progress to drive rapid improvement. Where it is found that a local authority does not have the capacity to bring about the changes needed, we will not hesitate to remove service control, as we have already done in Doncaster and Slough. In other cases we have introduced executive commissioners, as in Rotherham, or appointed a strong council to take over an inadequate council’s services. For example, Hampshire took over the running of the Isle of Wight in June 2013. We are working on similar partnerships, with Plymouth supporting Torbay and Leeds supporting Kirklees.
We have continued to provide funding of £2 million a year to the NSPCC to assist with the running of the ChildLine national helpline. In the second quarter of this year, almost 20,000 child welfare contacts were received by the helpline. Of these contacts, nearly 8,000 resulted in a new referral to an external agency and more than 4,500 were provided with advice.
The noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, raised the Government’s carers strategy. Children should not be weighed down with the burden of being carers. With this in mind, we want to make sure that help for young carers is at the heart of proposals on social care. We are considering these questions as part of the upcoming Green Paper on care and support. Ahead of its publication, the Department of Health will publish an action plan on carers. This will set out a cross-government programme of targeted work to support carers, including young carers, over the next two years.
On 1 November this year, we published our Safeguarding Strategy: Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking and Refugee Children. In addition to the Government’s commitments, we will continue to bring together the voluntary sector, community groups and individuals to help support the most vulnerable unaccompanied asylum seeking and refugee children.
We aim to drive social mobility by breaking the link between a person’s background and where they get to in life. We are working towards tackling geographic disadvantage and are investing £72 million in opportunity areas in the country with the greatest challenges and fewest opportunities. We have invested £137 million in the Education Endowment Foundation, created in 2011 to improve educational attainment of the poorest pupils in English schools. Fixing social mobility is not something that will happen overnight, and we aim to ensure that children in all areas can access high-quality education and opportunities at every stage. Today we are announcing the social mobility action plan A Plan for Improving Social Mobility through Education. The emphasis is on the areas of the country most in need of support, which inevitably have the highest numbers of vulnerable children.
Making a difference to the lives of the most disadvantaged children requires an approach that goes beyond the welfare system and tackles the underlying causes of child poverty and disadvantage. Children in workless families achieve significantly poorer outcomes than other children, including those children living in lower-income working families. We know that it is important to tackle worklessness and the complex problems associated with it. Improving Lives: Helping Workless Families was published in April this year and provides a framework for continued focus on improving children’s outcomes. We are making progress: there are more than 600,000 fewer children living in workless households than in 2010.
My noble friend Lord Farmer raised the important point that families lie at the heart of solving these issues. I pay tribute to him and the production of his recently published manifesto for strengthening families.
The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked several questions. I hope I have answers for him. He asked about unresolved immigration issues, including those of EEA nationals. Local authorities are not required to provide annual reports to the DfE on the immigration status of looked-after children and care leavers, other than to register how many unaccompanied asylum seekers they are looking after. The thinking here is that, when children with immigration status issues become looked-after children, they should be safeguarded and have their welfare protected in the same way as any other looked-after child.
The noble Lord asked what steps the Government are taking to ensure local authorities have sufficient resources to regularise the legal status of looked-after children with unresolved immigration issues. On 1 November this year, revised statutory guidance was published for local authorities on Care of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Child Victims of Modern Slavery. The guidance now makes it clear that local authorities have a duty to support looked-after children to regularise their status if it has been ascertained that they are undocumented.
The noble Lord also asked what steps have been taken to address the problem of school exclusions of young children with undiagnosed special educational needs. Our school exclusion guidance is clear that any decision to exclude a pupil should be lawful, reasonable and fair. Head teachers should, as far as possible, avoid permanently excluding any child with an education, health and care plan. The statutory guidance requires schools to give particular consideration to the fair treatment of pupils from groups that are vulnerable to exclusion. This includes considering what extra support might be needed to identify and address the needs of pupils from these groups in order to reduce their risk of exclusion.
I draw to the Minister’s attention a charity in Birmingham called Malachi, run by the man who set it up more than 20 years ago, Gordon Lee. It has had terrific success in sorting out children from broken homes where schools have been excluding them but has not received adequate support from the Birmingham local authority.
I thank my noble friend for that information.
My noble friend Lord Balfe made important comments around the definition of vulnerability—we heard also from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—with which I agreed.
The noble Lord, Lord Warner, was concerned about unregistered settings and home education. The powers of local authorities are the same for all children, irrespective of the setting that they are in: if the local authority has a safeguarding concern, it should not hesitate to use its powers under the Children Acts. We have provided additional resources to Ofsted to root out illegal schools, and the DfE is taking further action to work with local authorities on this.
The noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked about Ofsted’s role in inspecting schools with vulnerable children. The guidance was adapted in March 2017 to take into account the medical needs of children in such schools. As the noble Lord, Lord Warner, will be aware, we have announced a consultation on the strengthening of guidance for local authorities and parents in the area of home education.
The noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about resources being made available for affordable housing. The Government have recently announced a further £2 billion for housing associations. This will increase the 2016 to 2021 affordable housing programme in England to more than £9 billion.
Despite the progress being made, we need to be engaged in an ongoing effort to search out children’s needs which have been overlooked and to identify where problems are being stored up for the future. We continue to work with the Children’s Commissioner, and the department is working to strengthen this engagement and support through the development of a new framework agreement planned for 2018.
I thank all noble Lords who have made contributions to this debate. If I have not been able to address specific questions I will write separately to noble Lords. Supporting vulnerable children and reducing the opportunity gap sits at the heart of all we are trying to achieve, in education and beyond.
I thank the Minister for that reply. He has been a Member of the House for such a short time that I must congratulate him on quickly learning the ability to sidestep questions that Members put in debates, but I think a little longer will prove that Members are also pretty experienced at making sure that that does not last and that they come back in on those issues, as I am sure we will.
One of the key questions that the Minister did not answer was in regard to ensuring that this will be given very senior attention—that of the Prime Minister herself. I asked whether the Minister would make a submission to her requesting that. Since the Minister was not able to reply in the debate, will he write to me? It was not just from me but from a number of Members of this House.
I thank all Members who took part in the debate. I have missed the noble Baroness, Lady Howarth of Breckland, dearly. She is not with us because of ill health. She has spent a lifetime working for children’s welfare, and it was a loss that she was not with us for this debate. I hope that she will be here next time we raise this issue—because it is not going to go away; the lack of assurances that the Minister was able to give us will make sure of that. I thank everyone who took part.
The Children’s Commissioner’s report is going to become an annual one, so we will be able to watch and comment rather forensically on just how well, or not, we as a nation are doing, through our Government, for the children of England who desperately need help in so many areas. In the meantime, I close by thanking everyone.